OMAHA, NE – The game was so good it couldn’t go just nine innings. Hailed by many as the collegiate pitching battle of the century, it took 11 innings, and a walk-off home run by Tommy White against closer Cam Minacci, for LSU to finally take down Wake Forest.
“We just slayed a giant tonight,” Tigers’ head coach Jay Johnson said. “That was special.”
For the Deacs, an amazing journey that went all the way to Omaha for the first time since 1955 ended just one win short of a final series for the national championship. Looking back, all head coach Tom Walter could feel was pride for the journey.
“I’m proud of our guys, not only for the way we battled today, but really all season,” he said. “The way these guys love each other, as a coach, I’d rather coach this team and not win the national championship than coach any other team. I’m just beyond proud of them.”
Following the loss, the entire Wake Forest team stayed out on the field one final time as Team 109. It was a hard moment for many, but the bond of the team itself prevailed over all.
Wake Forest players embracing on the field. pic.twitter.com/YHie3xn9tV— Essex Thayer (@essexthayer7) June 23, 2023
“It was a tough one there,” Wilken said. “We just embraced each other and reiterated how much we love one another. This is the last time a lot of us will get to put on this jersey. I’m glad I got to do it with two guys to my right [Walter and Rhett Lowder] and all 30 guys in the dugout. Those are my best friends. And I got to go to war with those guys every single day. I’m lucky and proud to say I played for Wake Forest baseball.”
“I’m grateful just to be able to put this jersey on,” Lowder added. “This might be the last time — it’s going to be hard for me to take this off tonight. But there’s no way I wouldn’t pitch in this game.”
A 5-2 Tigers win Wednesday evening forced both teams to take drastic measures on the mound — starting Lowder and Paul Skenes, two of the best pitchers in the nation.
The future top-10 draft picks shined under the brightest lights. Skenes struck out nine while allowing just two hits in eight innings. Lowder went seven and gave up three knocks.
“Paul Skenes was fantastic, and Rhett matched him pitch for pitch,” Walter said. “It was one of the best pitched college baseball games I’ve ever seen…The most amazing thing is [Lowder’s] an even better kid than he is a pitcher. He’s just the kind of guy that you want to go to war with. He’s the epitome of what you want in a college baseball player.”
It’s fitting for a battle of that magnitude, with neither giving up a run, that Lowder and Skenes did not factor into the final scoreline decision.
Wake Forest had the opportunities to score, but came just short of doing so — not to their fault.
In the seventh inning, with runners on the corners fresh off one of Skenes’ few mistakes of the night, Marek Houston laid down a bunt to force a play at home. LSU first baseman Tre’ Morgan read the attempt perfectly and flung the ball to the catcher, beating Johnson by inches. Tommy Hawke ended the inning with a close line-out to left.
Three innings later, Danny Corona led the Wake Forest’s bats off with a deep fly to left field that initially looked to have the distance to clear the wall, but died in the wind just in front of its desired target.
And finally, in the team’s last trip to the plate before White’s walk-off, Hawke put together a two-out rally with a single and stolen base. Following a Lucas Costello walk, Brock Wilken just got under a ball for the third out.
One of the hardest pills to swallow for Wake Forest was someone who didn’t have an opportunity to make a play due to injury — Nick Kurtz. He was hit in the ribs by a pitch against Alabama in the Super Regional, something that plagued him the rest of the postseason.
“I have to think if we had had a healthy Nick Kurtz this week, maybe [we win], who knows, maybe yesterday is different too,” Walter said.
To aid the team in reaching extra innings, Michael Massey pitched brilliantly behind Lowder and a brief one-out appearance by Cole Roland. The sophomore gave Wake Forest 2.2 clean innings of one-hit baseball, striking out five.
“You might see four pitchers that were on that mound tonight from both teams that will pitch in Major League Baseball All-Star Games,” Johnson said, referring to Lowder, Massey, Skenes and his final reliever, Thatcher Hurd.
After allowing a leadoff single to Dylan Crews to open the 11th, Walter turned to Minacci to face White. His first pitch would be the Deacons’ last.
“I was definitely going for a heater,” White said of the at-bat. “I thought a heater was coming. But I was very amped up, and I saw a slider that was up. And I put my bat head to it.”
After the home run, White found his adversary to support him.
“Their season is over, it’s a very hard time,” he said. “They had high expectations coming into this. And they played great. I’ve known Camden and Bennett Lee for quite some time. We’re all from Tampa. I played with him, against him growing up my whole life. And he’s one of my closest friends. So I didn’t want him to feel anything. I just wanted to make sure he was all right.”
With the loss, there will always be ‘what ifs’ around this team, but there is no question the legacy they leave behind for Team 110, 111, 112 and many more to come.
“Team 109 blended the future and the past together,” Wilken said. “This is now the standard. And we exceeded a lot of our expectations and the world’s expectations. So to be able to go out there and play every day and leave a lasting legacy that people will always look up to, that means more than any personal accolade will ever mean.”
In Walter’s mind, it won’t be long until Wake Forest returns to Omaha.
“Wake Forest will be back in this game again,” he said. “I know it won’t be with all these guys on this team because we’ve got several guys that will be high draft picks, [and] we’ve got a couple of seniors too. I’m sorry they won’t be back in this game, but I know Wake Forest will be.”
This concludes Blogger So Dear’s coverage of Wake Forest baseball in Omaha. Stay tuned for further news and updates ahead of the Deacons’ summer practices for the 2023 football season